ISIL and Iraq's Pandora's Box: Dark Forces of Sectarianism, Ongoing US War and Maliki Regime
04 July 2014
By Ramzy Baroud
"Labeiki ya Zaynab," chanted Iraqi Shiite fighters as
they swayed, dancing with their rifles before news
cameras in Baghdad on 13 June. They were apparently
getting ready for a difficult fight ahead. For them,
it seemed that a suitable war chant would be answering
the call of Zaynab, the daughter of Imam Ali, the
great Muslim Caliph who lived in Medina 14 centuries
ago. That was the period through which the Shiite sect
slowly emerged, based on a political dispute whose
consequences are still felt until this day.
Dark Forces of Sectarianism
That chant alone is enough to demonstrate the ugly
sectarian nature of the war in Iraq, which has reached
an unprecedented highpoint in recent days. Fewer than
1,000 fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant (ISIL) advanced against Iraq's largest city of
Mosul on 10 June, sending two Iraqi army divisions
(nearly 30,000 soldiers) to a chaotic retreat.
The call to arms was made by a statement issued by
Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani, and read on his behalf during a Friday
prayer's sermon in Kerbala. "People who are capable of
carrying arms and fighting the terrorists in defense
of their country (..) should volunteer to join the
security forces to achieve this sacred goal," the
statement in part read.
The terrorists of whom Sistani speaks are those of
ISIL, whose numbers throughout the region are
estimated at only 7,000 fighters. They are well
organized, fairly well-equipped and absolutely
To secure their remarkable territorial gains, they
quickly moved south, closing in on other Iraqi towns:
They attacked and took over Baiji on 11 June. On the
same day, they conquered Tikrit, the town of former
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, where they were joined
by ex-Baathist fighters.
For two days, they tried to take over Samarra, but
couldn't, only to move against Jalawala and Saaddiyah,
to the east of Baghdad. It is impossible to verify
reports of what is taking place in towns that fall
under the control of ISIL, but considering their
notoriously bloody legacy in Syria, and ISIL's own
online reporting on their own activities, one can
expect the worse.
On 13 June, a United Nations spokesperson said
hundreds of people were possibly killed in the
fighting, many of whom were summarily executed. ISIL's
own gory propaganda video footage and pictures give
much credence to the claim.
Within days, ISIL was in control of a large swathe of
land. Taken together, this offers a new map fully
altering the political boundaries of the Middle East
that were largely envisioned by colonial powers France
and Britain nearly a century ago.
Ongoing US War
What the future holds is difficult to predict. The US
administration is petrified by the notion of getting
involved in Iraq once more. It was its original
meddling, at the behest of the neoconservatives who
largely determined US foreign policy during George W
Bush's administration, that ignited this turmoil.
They admitted failure and withdrew in December 2011,
hoping to sustain a level of influence over the Iraqi
government under Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
They failed miserably and Iran is now the most
influential foreign power in Baghdad.
Iran's influence and interests are so strong that
despite much saber-rattling by US President Barack
Obama, the US cannot possibly modify the massively
changing reality in Iraq without Iranian help. Reports
in US and British media are pointing to possible
US-Iranian involvement to counter ISIL, not just in
Iraq, but also in Syria.
History is accelerating at a frantic speed. Seemingly
impossible alliances are being hastily formed. Maps
are being redrawn in directions that are determined by
masked fighters with automatic weapons mounted on the
back of pickup trucks. True, no one could have
predicted such events, but when some warned that the
Iraq war would "destabilize" the Middle East for many
years to come, this is precisely what they meant.
When Bush led his war on Iraq in order to fight al-Qaeda,
the group simply didn't exist in that country; the war
however, brought al-Qaeda to Iraq. A mix of hubris and
ignorance of the facts - and lack of understanding of
Iraq's history - allowed the Bush administration to
sustain that horrible war. Hundreds of thousands of
Iraqis perished in an immoral military quest. Those
who were not killed, were maimed, tortured, raped or
fled into a borderless Iraqi odyssey.
The Americans toyed with Iraq in numerous ways. They
dissolved the army, dismissed all government
institutions, attempted to restructure a new society
based on the recommendations of Pentagon and CIA
analysts in Washington DC and Virginia. They oppressed
the Sunni Muslims, empowered the Shiites and fed the
flame of sectarianism with no regard for the
consequences. When things didn't go as planned, they
tried to empower some Shiite groups over others, and
armed some Sunni groups to fight the Iraqi resistance
to the war, which was mostly made of Sunni fighters.
And the consequences were most bloody. Iraq's civil
war of 2006-07 added tens of thousands of more lives
to the ever-growing toll caused by the US adventure.
Sham elections have not remedied the situation, nor
have torture techniques been enough to suppress the
rebellion. Fiddling with the sectarian or ethnic
demographics of the country clearly not led to the
ISIL as a US Creation
In December 2011, the Americans ran away from the Iraq
inferno, leaving behind a fight that was not yet
settled. What is going on in Iraq right now is an
integral part of the US-infused mayhem. It is telling
enough that the leader of ISIL, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi
is an Iraqi from Samarra, who fought against the
Americans and was himself held and tortured in the
largest US prison in Iraq, Camp Bucca for five years.
It would not be precise to say ISIL was born in the
dungeon of a US prison in Iraq. The story of ISIL
needs to be examined in greater depth as it stretches
throughout the whole geography of the conflict, and is
as mysterious as the masked characters who are blowing
people up with no mercy and beheading them with no
regard for the values of the religion they purport to
But there can be no denial that the US's ignorant
orchestration of the mass oppression of Iraqis, and
Sunnis in particular during the 2003 war until their
much touted withdrawal was a major factor in both
ISIL's formation and the horrendous levels of violence
the extremist group utilizes.
While the Sunni-Shiite strife is rooted in over 14
centuries of history, modern Middle Eastern states,
with all of its corruption and failures, did manage to
neutralize much of the violent manifestation of the
historical dispute. The Bush administration insolently
reawakened the conflict. Iran exploited the situation
for various reasons for sheer political and
territorial interests, coupled with hopes of redeeming
what many Shiites perceive as past injustices.
When al-Qaeda was ostensibly driven out of major Iraqi
cities by 2008, they simply regrouped. The Syrian
civil war, which started three years ago, created the
kind of security vacuum which allowed them to make
their move. But al-Qaeda itself began to splinter, to
a "central command", operating via decrees from
Afghanistan and Pakistan, an Islamic Front that hosts
several al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, and ISIL, which
had its own calculations that go beyond Syria.
ISIL believes that the only way to redeem the honor of
Muslims is to re-establish the Caliphate, an Islamic
state. The heart of that state, as it has historically
been is Sham (Levant) and Iraq, thus ISIL's name.
It is unclear whether ISIL will be able to hold onto
the territories it gained or sustain itself in a
battle that involves Shiite-controlled Baghdad, Iran
and the US. But a few things are certain:
The systematic political marginalization of Iraq's
Sunni communities is both senseless and unsustainable.
A new political and social contract is needed to
re-order the mess created by the US invasion, and
other foreign intervention in Iraq, including that of
Violence is a dark and destructive energy force that
doesn't evaporate on its own. The current violence in
Iraq is the reverberation of the US and Iraqi violence
used against millions of Iraqis who refused to embrace
the occupation and accept the status quo. Justice in
Iraq should supersede any haphazard reconciliation
that merely reinvents the present circumstances.
Iraq was allowed to ache in untold pain for over a
decade, which itself followed a decade of an earlier
US-led war and sanctions. During all of those years,
starting in 1991, the only answer to Iraq's woes has
been nothing but violence, which has consistently
generated nothing but more violence. The US must not
be allowed to once again determine the future of Iraq.
The nature of the conflict has become so convoluted
that a political settlement in Iraq would have to
tackle a similar settlement in Syria, which is serving
as a breeding ground for brutality, by the Syrian
regime and opposition forces, especially ISIL. That
factory of radicalization must close down as soon as
possible in a way that would allow Syria's wounds, and
by extension Iraq's, to heal.
Those who insist on the violent option are holding
onto the same foolish assumption that violence can be
a harbinger of lasting peace in the Middle East. Even
if ISIL scampers back to Syria or disappears into some
other opportune landscape in Iraq itself, the fight
will not end without a political settlement that
confronts the outcomes of the US war, free of the
formula of triumphant Shiites and perpetually
suppressed Sunnis. In order for Iraq to reunify its
fragmented territories, it needs to first unify the
very identity of its own citizens, as Iraqis first and
- Ramzy Baroud is the Managing Editor of Middle
East Eye. He is an internationally-syndicated
columnist, a media consultant, an author and the
founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is
My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story
(Pluto Press, London).